Music and Orca Lab don’t often mix. When you’re passively listening around the clock, an earbud can miss that first whispered call. But music ties me tightly to this place because for much of my life I’ve had an iPod in my pocket.
There are songs I hear nine years later that I still place to memories centered around this place. It starts with a track by the band Snow Patrol before I even knew the Lab existed.
My first trip to British Columbia was a kayaking trip when I was 18. Returning to civilization I recharged my iPod, stuck it on shuffle, and this is what came up. For the following winter I returned to this song again and again. It has nothing to do with wilderness or nature (though it does have the word ‘water’ in it) but it pulls me back to those days when my internal compass was spinning out of control and I transformed from basketball player to Edward Abbey apostle.
The next summer I returned to British Columbia. Like many of us I had the privilege of volunteering at the Lab. And, like many of us, I made the trip north from the city of Vancouver via Greyhound bus. Blurry eyed and yawning I slumped against the window and watched the concrete give way to forest. As I hit play on my iPod, this is the first song that came on, and it is forever tied to that smelly bus station and the promise that I was almost there.
A few hours later the bus took the familiar right turn off highway 19 and into Port McNeil. Down the hill, sharp right turn, Malcom Island visible in the distance. The moment needed a song fitting of this momentous moment and fate delivered.
Is there a better song to hear into when you’ve waited all winter and counted down the days until you made it back? The answer is no, no there is not. That piano, awesome. I still get goosebumps as I remember grabbing my duffel bag and looking around as the bus disappeared, wondering where on earth the Port McNeil campground was.
We had macaroni and cheese my first night at the Lab. I’ll never forget it. By the time we’d finished eating it was too dark to pitch our tents so we slept in the guest cabin. As I sit at the table in that very cabin, I can still point to the spot on the floor where I laid out my sleeping bag that night, put in my headphones and fell asleep to more Snow Patrol
I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else, but it’s the little moments that make this place special. I’ve had Orcas buzz past Cracroft Point and been awoken by humpbacks deep in the cove on a midnight high tide. But it’s Helena coming into the lab at 6 in the morning with cinnamon rolls that chokes me up. It’s having the honor of introducing this place to others that are my fondest memories. It’s quiet afternoons with Grandma Cedar and giving fish to Harbor Seals that I’ll miss the most.
Miss. It’s still hard to fathom using that word. But miss it I will, because this is our final winter. Geez that was hard to write. In the end, I’ll have spent almost two years of my life here. It seems like a lot when you add it all together, but believe me when I say it’s gone by in a heartbeat. When memories that are almost ten years old are still so vivid, the time between feels like a blur. But Orca Lab has given me something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
If you could have told me when I met Paul Spong that he would turn from folk hero to mentor to boss to friend, I would have cried. Paul taught me so much before I even shook his hand. His story is one of resilience, conviction, and truth. It would have been easy for him to keep quiet and stay in his lane. But Paul doesn’t care about staying in his lane. Skana deserved to go home and a cement pool was not what she deserved. So he picketed his employer when they threw him out. He went north and pushed his kayak into the waves of Blackfish Sound because his faith in himself outweighed the doubts of the world.
And look at what’s been built. Look at the lives that he and Helena have touched and impacted. It’s a legacy, there’s no other word for it. Everyone who sets foot in this place is transported. There is a look of childlike innocence, their faith in the greater good is restored, the answers to life’s questions in a slice of Helena’s bread and a cold Kokanee.
In the end I think that’s what I’ll remember most. Paul and Helena’s quiet confidence and faith in themselves. I won’t beat a drum about how people don’t do this sort of thing anymore, they do. We’re going to a place populated by people who believe and act much like the apostles of Orca Lab. In our home in Gustavus, Alaska is a young man that I imagine is a lot like Paul was when he first drove up Vancouver Island.
Zach Brown is a dark haired and quick witted 30-year old with a P.H.D in Oceanography and a deep love of basketball, good beer, and keeping the world green. Like Paul, don’t you dare tell him, “no” or that it cannot be done. The guy celebrated the successful defense of his Doctorate by walking from the Stanford campus to Port Angeles, Washington. There he traded his hikers for a kayak and paddled the inside passage to Gustavus. He is a man of constant motion and ideas. He’s a fighter, he’s idealistic, he wants to change the world. He not only wants Alaska to cleanse itself of fossil fuel consumption, he has plans for how it can be done. Will we see it in our lifetime? The pessimist in me says probably not, but he has the same faith that Paul has. The same faith that continues to believe that after almost forty years, Corky can still come home.
It is impossible to be in the presence of people like this and not be inspired.
To the south of Gustavus is Icy Strait. At the west end of the strait is a cluster of islands called the Inians. I don’t know how they go their name, perhaps some mariner meant to write Indian and forgot the “D.” The archipelago is part of the Tongass National Forest, and thanks to recent legislation, its old growth should be protected for eternity. Except for one piece. On that piece is a homestead, settled into a protected little bay. The people of Gustavus call it the Hobbit Hole. When it went up for sale, Zach Brown got an idea not unlike one Paul had all those years ago.
“Isn’t immersing yourself in the natural world the best way to study the natural world?”
The night after meeting with Zach I rode home on my bike, Grand Funk Railroad in my ears.
And so the Inian Island Institute was born. When the homestead went up for sale Zach went from one corner of the continent to the other to find funders and donors who would believe in him. The Hobbit Hole is his now. Or the Institutes to be more accurate.
It’s a place where students come to learn, get off the concrete, and see the biomes they’ve read about in textbooks. The place is run on hydropower and fed by the garden, deer, salmon, halibut, and shrimp. Brittney and I plan to be heavily involved in Zach’s work. The world needs whistle blowers now more than ever. Patient, convicted, and passionate speakers of truth and fact. And this is a place where we can scream at the top of our lungs and enlist the generation that will either clean up the messes of the past or be buried by them.
I won’t be callous and say it’s the Orca Lab of Alaska, for that is an insult to this place. There is NO place like Orca Lab and there never will be. For that’s the beauty of nature, nothing is identical. There is magic to every bend in the cove and the ring of every tree. I will bawl my eyes out when we pull away for the last time. I will miss this place every day for the rest of my life. I will scroll through photos and feel my heart ache for the sunrise over Vancouver Island, Harlequin’s on the rocks, and Sea Lions yelling in the night.
But the playlist is finished. It’s time. I am gracious for the peace and comfort this place has brought me and humbled to have the chance to leave my small imprint. It has realigned my vision of what I can and want to be. It has given me a direction that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am not David Cannamore, amateur writer, kayak guide, and husband to Brittney without this place. I cannot imagine what I would be without this island, Paul, or Helena. I will never be able to truly express my gratitude to those two magnificent people. So let me end this post with that. Gratitude and thankfulness for a place and people that will never be replaced. Bless this place, the Orcas it watches over, and every 3 am wakeup to record their calls.
“I know there’s, California, Oklahoma,
and all of the places that I ain’t never been to but,
down in the valley with whiskey rivers,
These are the places you will find me hiding.
These are the places I will always go.”